Masters from the past

Goh Ee Choo

In the 1990s, artist Goh Ee Choo was among Singapore's brightest young art stars.

A graduate of London's prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, his cutting-edge, conceptual work drew praise from art critics here and chalked up multiple art awards.

But by the new millennium, he had faded away from the art world, his name mentioned only in passing when the 1988 ground-breaking exhibition Trimurti, which first put him in the spotlight, is cited in accounts of Singapore's contemporary art history.

The show, which also included Goh's peers, S. Chandrasekaran and Salleh Japar, was held at the Goethe-Institut. It featured works grounded in the belief systems and iconography of the artists' different religious traditions - Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

This culturally specific approach to contemporary art made the exhibition an immediate critical success because it marked a breakthrough in contemporary art discourse at that time, which was mostly driven by Western concepts. Chandrasekaran and Salleh are now both lecturers in the fine arts department at the Lasalle College of the Arts.

While Goh's star has dimmed over the last decade, he has not stayed idle as an artist - the nature of his art-making has merely changed.

In the early noughties, Goh, a staunch Buddhist, devoted himself to making purely religious art, drawing images of Buddha that he either gave away or displayed in religious art shows.

And since 2007, he has been creating animated art drawings and moulding students in the animation department of Lasalle College of the Arts where he is a part-time lecturer.

The conceptual art visionary, religious art-maker and animated art creator may all sound like distinct individuals - but in Goh, 52, there is a meeting of minds. "Teaching is my work of art," he says. "The students are my artists and the end result is when they come out and find good jobs in the animation arts industry."

Goh, who is married without children to a part-time art teacher, adds: "When I make art, I pay attention to harmony, balance and rhythm and it is the same with my classes. I make sure there is flow between the lessons so it makes sense to the students." Indeed, his journey of art has perhaps, at this point, brought him closest to what first sparked his love for art - the world of moving and talking images.

Growing up, his grandfather and father both ran cinemas in Bukit Timah and he was fed a steady diet of movies as well as animated cartoons such as Mighty Mouse.

After finishing his secondary education at Anglo-Chinese School, he enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa). The absence of animation art classes then did not stop him from "exploring ways to make my paintings move".

"I would combine kinetic and sound elements in my painting and I experimented with relief sculpture, video art and creating optical illusions in painting," he says.

For him, message trumped medium and he used forms and genres that best allowed him to express his ideas and concepts. His study of art also led him to probe the deeper things of life, including its meaning, and it was then that he first encountered Buddhist teachings.

He says: "My art was influenced by things such as Taoism, the notion of qi (vital energy) in painting and the idea that art, like meditation and spiritual practices, should raise the energy level of the viewers."

He graduated from Nafa in 1985, became a full-time artist and was awarded the British Council Fellowship in Fine Arts to study in London in 1988.

Around that time, before he went to London, an administrator at the Goethe-Institut, Ms Moh Siew Lan, approached Goh, Salleh and Chandrasekaran to hold a group show at the venue. She had come to know the trio, friends and classmates at Nafa, through their visits to exhibitions at the institute.

On the success of Trimurti, Goh says: "It was like buying a Sweep ticket and finding out you are a millionaire the next day." After he returned from London in 1990, he taught at Nafa until 1996, before joining Lasalle as a part-time lecturer, first in its fine arts programme.

He continued to make art on the side, refining his early ideas on Taoism and Buddhism while imbuing his pieces with a stronger sense of spirituality. His work, Container Shrine Series For World Peace (1996), for example, recreates the experience of a Buddhist shrine inside a cargo container and presents it as an art installation to make a statement against art for art's sake. It was exhibited in Copenhagen in 1996.

His works from the 1990s also travelled overseas, showing in places such as Taipei and Denmark, and were sold to private collectors and the Singapore Art Museum.

In a 1998 essay on Goh's body of work, Singapore curator and art critic Constance Sheares sang his praises.

She wrote: "Guided by principles that are partly aesthetic and partly ideological, he tries to expose moral and ethical factors which convention considers purely private. His art is concerned with making visible what is invisible, literally giving body to the spirit of life." As he became more religious, however, he could not avoid scrutinising his work through spiritual lenses and asking the question: Was his art enhancing the lives of others or was it meaningless?

He says: "If I use a certain language of expression that the audience can't understand, then it's meaningless. If my artwork cannot inspire people, cannot help someone, then I am not really giving them anything."

Eventually, he decided to match what people needed to what he could give, devoting himself to the art of teaching. And he is relishing it, including the leap from teaching drawing in fine art to animation art, a position he was approached by the school to take on when an opening for it came up.

A fan of role-playing computer games such as Skyrim and Dragon's Dogma, he says: "I just have to adapt. For example, instead of drawing Singapore street scenes, I teach the students to create fantasy worlds."

And this, to him, is the epitome of his artistic career. He says, contentment written on his face: "I've reached a time to step back and let a younger generation step forward. My job now is just to share with them, get them inspired and let them know I'm there for them."

Chieu Shuey Fook 

Artist Chieu Shuey Fook was the darling of business corporations in the 1970s and 1980s when they were among the biggest patrons of Singapore's visual arts.

His vivid metal relief works attracted commissions by companies here such as the former Dresdner Bank and shipping company Neptune Orient Lines, and hung proudly in grand office lobbies.

Singapore Airlines also commissioned metal relief works by him in the early 1970s to bedeck the interiors of its fleet of Boeing 747 planes.

His art was similarly well-known to the wider public.

The most prominent among his public artworks was a 30m-long copper frieze that stood outside Orchard MRT station from 1987 for 20 years.

The mural, which depicted Singapore's diverse ethnic cultures, was later lost during the construction of Ion Orchard mall that sits above the station.

Of the loss, Chieu, 80, says in Mandarin: "It was there one week, then gone the next time I passed by the place.

"I could have brought up the matter to the authorities but I didn't want to fight anyone and I was lazy to write a letter."

Nor is he given to looking back on what has been done.

An alumnus of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), he tells you unabashedly his art enjoyed a ready market and steady audience in the past because he switched from batik painting to metal relief work in the 1970s.

The popular batik painting scene here had become increasingly crowded with both amateurs and prominent artists such as Seah Kim Joo and Jaafar Latiff, and he wanted to forge his own visual vocabulary.

And he had ideas. He was keen to use metal plates as a medium for painting in lieu of canvas. The thought first came to him when he was a printing press assistant in the early 1950s, but he had yet to realise it.

While there were other artists exploring abstract metal relief at that time, including Chieu's teacher at Nafa, pioneer Singapore artist Cheong Soo Pieng, Chieu's work stood apart for its semi-abstract quality and his signature way of merging painting and etching.

His experiments in metal relief quickly paid off - he found immediate fame.

One of his first creations in the medium, a low-relief aluminium work titled Demon Fish (1970), was picked by the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation for its worldwide advertising campaign.

The work also made waves in the United States, winning a citation of merit from the Society of Illustrators in 1971.

Chieu's early success spurred him to push the boundaries of his craft and creativity.

Since giving up a 28-year career as an advertising art director and becoming a full-time artist in 1984, he has expanded his body of work to include enamel on copper murals; brightly coloured, semi-abstract metal reliefs with energetic line compositions reminiscent of Chagall and Miro; and enamel-and-glass on tile compositions.

In a 2012 World Sculpture News magazine article on Chieu's work, art writer Ian Findlay wrote: "He is an abstract artist who understands geometry and how swathes of colours are able to define his forms with a lyrical ease, and with a sense of humour that makes his vision even more attractive to the senses."

A major force driving his artistic explorations is a curiosity about how chemicals interact on surfaces to create images. An aluminium relief work that he is working on uses a blend of powdered pigments he formulated himself to create the effect of oxidised bronze.

He is similarly keen to incorporate everyday, industrial materials into his pieces.

For example, he began introducing enamel to his works after he came upon colourful pieces of enamel jewellery worn by hippies in San Francisco when he visited the American city in the 1960s.

"I like to use commercial ideas to progress my art," he says. This leaning reflects what inspired him to pursue art.

Born the eldest of seven to parents who were itinerant hawkers, Chieu recalls how he would sneak off to an alley near his home in Amoy Street, when his parents were working, to watch, spellbound, as artisans transformed the bodies of vans with paints into colourful advertisements.

It was perhaps no coincidence that he later found employment as a visualiser in an advertising company here and rose through the ranks in an almost three- decade-long career to become a senior art director at Ogilvy & Mather where he worked on campaigns for brands such as Rolex and Borneo Motors.

Throughout his professional practice, however, he continued to make art, juggling both roles successfully.

Yet despite producing a constant stream of new works and ideas, and having his creations such as the semi- abstract metal relief works Man (2000) and Peaceful Heart (2008) added to the national art collection in recent years, he has gradually slipped away from the limelight.

On fading away from public view, Chieu, a widower with five children and nine grandchildren, says: "I'm not disappointed. It doesn't matter to me if my work is not recognised. But if it is, that is good."

He accepts culpability too. "I have not been actively seeking out new opportunities to show my works," he says.

He adds: "If I do a show, it must stand out, the works must be creative and show new techniques. You don't want people to say it's the same old stuff."

But with a rich body of work amassed through the years, he is ready to hold a major solo show next year and is in the midst of preparing for it.

He says: "At my age, I don't care what people say anymore. I just want to show the new breakthroughs in my art."

Wee Kong Chai

Art of the here and now is often an obsession with what is hot, new and young.

From budding artists bursting onto the scene to upcoming art stars showing off fresh work, the contemporary art world resists being of the past.

Singapore's visual arts landscape has similarly lapsed into amnesia from time to time, spurning what has been done before for a heady taste of the innovative, and the giddy pace at which new artists and art forms emerge.

But things are changing.

Exhibitions in recent times which have cast a critical eye on Singapore's visual arts history have persuaded audiences that its past is rich and ripe for a relook.

The well-received exhibition on the late Singapore painter Yeh Chi Wei in 2010, for example, reacquainted arts audiences with a seminal artist of the 1960s and 1970s for whom recognition was long overdue. The show was organised by the National Gallery Singapore and held at the Singapore Art Museum.

More recently, the National Museum of Singapore dug deep into the nation's archive of art to stage A Changed World. The show, held at the same time last year as the contemporary art blockbuster, the Singapore Biennale, examined Singapore's history and art from the 1950s to 1970s.

The exhibition brought to light little- seen-before works and resurfaced names of artists who have faded away from the limelight until recently, such as Choy Weng Yang and Tan Teo Kwang.

Mass infatuation with the new in art may also be countervailed by the opening of the National Gallery Singapore next year. The museum will focus on South­east Asian and Singapore art from as early as the 19th century.

Another institution which has been revisiting past heroes is the Institute of Southeast Asian Arts and Art Galleries at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa). It has regularly, since its opening in 2004, held solo shows of artists who have played a major role in developing artistic practices relevant to contemporary art here. These include exhibitions featuring Cultural Medallion recipients Ho Ho Ying and Wee Beng Chong.

The director of the institute and galleries, Ms Bridget Tracy Tan, 40, says its shows also seek to highlight older artists and Nafa alumni "who are seen to have slowed down in their practices in recent years". She says: "If an artist has not been published much or spoken about in the context of historical relevance and artistic or cultural relevance, once they pass, their significance and knowledge may pass with them."

Also making a case for the continued study of Singapore's senior artists is art adviser and former director of the National Gallery Singapore, Mr Kwok Kian Chow. The 58-year-old says: "This is not just because the artists continue to produce new works and move in new directions - our frame of understanding would have also evolved over time."

He adds that beyond exhibitions, it is also important to get critical dialogue going on the work of senior and emerging artists, and ensure that this discourse does not "adhere blindly to what is in vogue in the biennale circuit, art market or even art theory". "We are likely to find continual attention paid to local artists and their work very significant in helping us think about our own cultural contexts," he says.

It is in this spirit that Life! caught up with three artists - sculptor Wee Kong Chai, 86; painter Chieu Shuey Fook, 80; and conceptual artist Goh Ee Choo, 52 - whose practices have marked significant moments in the development of the visual arts in Singapore.

The three have, in recent years, fallen off the public's radar, holding few exhibitions due to constraints such as the nature of their practice - Wee, for example, can spend years perfecting a sculpture. However, they remain active in the exploration of art and their personal journeys offer a look at the dynamic and varied landscape of art in Singapore.

This article was first published on July 8, 2014.
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